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Time to mention the unmentionable

Tom Fordyce | 20:22 GMT, Sunday, 15 March 2009

Declan Kidney couldn't say it. Ronan O'Gara couldn't say it.

Keith Wood tried not to say it, but ended up saying it anyway. "Even the mention of the words 'Grand Slam' is bad luck," warned the former Ireland and Lions hooker, in the style of Captain Mainwaring telling Pike not to give his name to the German U-Boat captain.

It took Rob Kearney to finally bring it out into the open. "The last few weeks there has been no mention of Grand Slams," he admitted. "It's sort of been banned. But now it is finally in our sights."

This promises to be a week of sleepless nights and heart-pounding days for Irish fans and players alike. Waiting 61 years for something tends to do that to you.

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One more match. One more win. In some ways, the fact that it's Wales in Cardiff that they need to beat to seal the Slam should make it easier on the nerves - of the last 12 Five/Six Nations games between the two there, Ireland have won 10 of them, Wales just one.

It won't, of course. There are too many ghosts jogging around, rattling their chains, groaning and wailing about years and chances gone before.

Four times since the one and only Grand Slam triumph of 1948 Ireland have gone into the final match of the campaign with a repeat in their sights.

Six years ago England came to Lansdowne Road and trampled all over Irish hopes, from the instant Martin Johnson led his side to the home side of the pitch and refused to budge for President Mary McAleese to the moment Dan Luger crossed for England's fifth try after 83 minutes to seal a 42-6 thumping.

In 1982 a side inspired to the Triple Crown by Ollie Campbell and Fergus Slattery went down 22-9 in Paris, while the superstitious will want to ignore the parallels from 40 years ago, when Wales dashed to a 24-11 win in Cardiff.

It was also Wales who snuffed out Irish hopes in 1951, albeit that time with a 3-3 draw. Then again, Ireland's other results that winter - beating France 9-8, England 3-0 and Scotland 6-5 hardly suggest a vintage team or year.

If omens are your thing, there are several happy ones to choose from. In that Grand Slam year of 1948, Ireland beat England by a point and then met Wales in the decider in Cardiff - sound familiar?

If you prefer logic, look no further than the slimmed-down form of Irish skipper Brian O'Driscoll, revitalised after two years in which both his form and physique wobbled, the relentless energy and drive of Paul O'Connell and David Wallace or the pace and confidence of Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald.

Ireland might have looked stodgy as a bowl of colcannon in the first half against Scotland, but, as with Wales' slam-winning side last year, they've so far found something special just when it was most needed.

On Saturday it was Peter Stringer's first run for his country in living memory that led to the key score, just as 12 months before Shane Williams had produced his first ever hand-off to score the crucial try in Wales' win in Dublin; where Huw Bennett had come from nowhere to deny Paul Sackey a match-winning score as Wales won at Twickenham, O'Driscoll sprinted the length of the pitch to prevent Phil Godman putting Scotland ahead in Murrayfield.

For Wales, it's now all about pooping the Irish party. To steal the championship from under Ireland's noses they need to win by 13 points, which may not be quite the ask it seems at first glance.

On the down side, it's 26 years since they last beat Ireland by that distance in Cardiff. On the up, they went within a point of that margin in sealing their own Slam in 2005.

After Gatland's mass changes in Rome, the big-hitting big boys will be back in from the start - Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones to beef up the front row, Ryan Jones and Martyn Williams to do the same to the back row. Gavin Henson will relish renewing hostilities with O'Driscoll after their spat in 2005.

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Ireland's position may also play into Welsh hands. Should Wales manage to work even a four-point lead going into the final 10 or 15 minutes, Ireland will be forced to throw the ball around in search of a winning score. And if that happens, errors and opportunities to counter-attack will surely mount.

It's a strange one for Kidney and his players. At the start of the season, they would have almost certainly settled for winning the championship alone - after all, it's been 24 years since they claimed even that.

Now, however, should they lose to Wales by 12 or less points and therefore still top the table, it'll feel like the emptiest of victories. "It's all or nothing really," admitted Kearney.

Wales, too, would be left staring at a big pile of what ifs - what if they hadn't made so many changes in Rome, what if they'd kicked for the corner rather than the posts in the last minute on Saturday, what if Martyn Williams had wriggled free of Francois Trinh-Duc's last-gasp tackle in Paris or Henson spotted the overlap out wide a few moments later.

The other games on the final weekend? Realistically, they're now reduced to sub-plots in the overall tale of the season.

France will beat Italy, which will come as no recompense for their performance at Twickenham, and England should continue Scotland's sorry record of failing to record a single win at Twickenham since 1983. Stranger things have happened, but the smart money won't be seen for dust.

For Ireland, it's all about getting to 5.30pm on Saturday in the best possible shape, anxiety at a minimum, confidence at a peak.

They prepared for their trip to Murrayfield with a gig from fiery troubadour Christy Moore. Ahead of Cardiff, they're planning to keep it a little calmer, team entertainments officer Jamie Heaslip having organised a night at the cinema. The pre-match meal, as always, will be spaghetti bolognese and pancakes.

Whether they'll be flatter than the proverbial come 7.20pm, or pasta caring, remains to be seen.

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